You might think this is going to be an essay full of handy tips and nifty tricks for navigating the globe as a solo traveler of the female persuasion. You might be expecting reminders to bring tampons and condoms (both of which are often not available the exact moment you want them most), or to wear a fake wedding band to deter would-be Casanovas. I could tell you to write down cell phone numbers, since none of our memories stretch that far anymore, to photocopy your passport and stash it separately, to carry toilet paper and a ziploc for locales where neither paper nor trash bins are available.
Until two weeks ago, this was going to be that kind of essay. And then, at a moment when I was feeling my most adventurous, my most independent, my most ass-kicking and name-taking, my delusions of self-sufficiency crumbled into a puddle in three minutes and one lost wallet.
I was going to Peru for a little quality time with me, myself and Machu Picchu. There would be Incan ruins galore, sublime ceviche, and a pisco sour or three. Flights were booked, hostels selected, permits acquired, and hiking boots broken in by tramping around my office building.
I arrived in Lima ready enjoy ten days of solo adventuring at my own pace. No pee breaks unless I have to pee. No museums unless I want to see skulls with holes in them. No lunch unless I’m hungry. Me me me me me me. I couldn’t wait.
At the baggage claim carousel I reached into my trusty shoulder bag for my wallet, and it was nowhere to be found. No money. No credit cards. Nada. This is not how expert travelers usually begin their adventures.
So, instead of telling you to carry Purell (you will be glad), and pack yoga tops that double as sports bras, here are my new suggestions for crisscrossing the globe:
1. Be Humble.
Americans of privilege (a group of which I count myself a member) tend to think that demanding service by brandishing a passport is your best way out of a tight spot in a foreign land. Not so. The world does not revolve around you, and your delusional assumption that “Soy Americana” is your magic pass only fuels the view that we are a bunch of entitled assholes. Do not cut lines. Do not ask for special favors. Say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you”. You would think this is obvious, but our collective history of behavior unfortunately suggests otherwise.
2. Trust Strangers.
People are kind and they want to help you. For every pickpocket or random train groper, there are 1,000 good people who are just going about their days. When you ask to borrow a phone, people will let you. When you need help, people will give it freely. They will underline maps, circle listings, point the way or walk you to your destination. They will share food and offer you a bed or a couch or a mat and ask what else they can do.
What’s yours is everyone’s. Finish a book? Leave it in the hostel book swap. Don’t need your bug spray/poncho/sun block/band aids anymore? Ask around, someone else does. Buy an enormous loaf of bread and a gigantic block of cheese at a market for what you would normally pay for a latte, and offer it to anyone sitting near you at the bus station/plaza/park. When you leave, and you’ve got a few pesky bills of foreign currency left, give your cab driver a really big tip. You do not need to tape it in a scrapbook.
4. Respect Work.
You will likely encounter people doing thankless and difficult work, whether it’s doling out squares of toilet paper at a public latrine, carrying your pack up a mountain while you skip gleefully behind, or shoving handmade trinkets in your face hoping for a sale. Recognize that you spent more on the plane ticket to get here than most people make in a month, if not a year. That says nothing meaningful about you and nothing meaningful about them, only that you won a lottery and they did not. Be grateful and acknowledge that there is dignity in trying to earn a living.
I like Lonely Planet, I really do. But every now then, ask a driver, a security guard, a flower vendor, or a shopkeeper where he or she gets a sandwich, and try that. Or pick a destination on the far side of a city, and then set out to walk there without opening your map. Get stuck? Ask for directions, and while you’re at it, “Where’s a good place to get a coffee?” There are more than four restaurants in each of the $, $$, and $$$ brackets.
Perhaps I am being naïve. The news is often flooded by pictures of tourists kidnapped or missing, of travelers who wandered into the wrong area, of parents worrying over their children’s lack of Facebook updates. Shit does happen, no doubt about it. But then again, it usually doesn’t.
Strangers gave me money at the airport to pay for a cab to my hostel. A taxi driver lent me his phone to make international calls. A fellow hostel-stayer accompanied me to the bank for moral support. The banker spent hours on the phone untangling mountainous red tape to get me emergency cash. The world I prefer to live in is one where people help each other when they can, share what they have, and treat each other like fellow humans. And the truth is, that’s the world I’ve found is waiting when I venture into it.